Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Athena by Way of Kelly Kapowski

Apologies if the rest of the video game-savvy world already jumped on this one decades ago, but I just learned there’s a new bit of relevance for Captain N: The Game Master. And I’m always happy to bring up Captain N.

A two-sentence primer, in case your childhood Saturday mornings played out differently than mine did: Captain N was a cartoon series that sought to blend the universes of various NES-era video games by uniting them though a “real world” protagonist: Kevin Keene, a San Fernando Valley teen who gets beamed into a video game universe where he gets to interact with characters from the Mega Man, Kid Icarus and Castlevania franchises. Kevin, however, was an original creation, as was the sole female character: Princess Lana, the regent of Videoland.

Here’s the intro sequence, in case you’re confused (and you probably should be):

It’s Princess Lana that I’m interested in. Even though I’ve loved the Kid Icarus series since I was wee, I only recently realized how much Lana looks like the Kid Icarus damsel in distress, a green-haired goddess called Palutena, her name apparently a corruption of Parthenos, one of the appellations for Athena. I mention all this just because it’s weird to think of the princess from a video game-themed Saturday morning cartoon show in the context of the virgin war goddess for whom the Parthenon was built.

Check them out, side by side: Lana, old school Palu and Palu as she looks in the recent, revamped Kid Icarus:

Depsite the premise, Captain N actually pulled from a narrow selection video game universe. Princess Zelda was appearing on the Zelda cartoon, and Princess Toadstool on the Super Mario Bros. Super Show, and neither Castlevania nor Mega Man had leading ladies at the time. That leaves Kid Icarus, the only game with an all-powerful, female monarch on the throne. I mean, look at them. Doesn’t Princess Lana look like a ’90s-tastic riff on this Greek goddess character? The gaming website Flying Omelette even goes as far to point out that “[Lana] looks more like Palutena than Mega Man looked like Mega Man or Simon Belmont looked like Simon Belmont.” Surely, they’re also close enough that one could be the inspiration for the other, right?

Right, it turns out.

I did some poking around and asked the people who designed the Captain N characters. The show originated with the Australian artist Fil Barlow. His fantastic concept art actually had the newspaper deliverer from Paperboy as the lead, among other differences. Subsequent characters, Barlow explained to me, were designed by other artists. He suggested I ask lead character designer Marcello Vignali about the Palutena-Lana connection. Vignali’s response to my email:
When we were working on Captain N, the Nintendo corporation gave us a bunch of 8-bit images of their characters. But, in some other cases they sent us some drawings or packaging art. I can't remember for sure if that was the case with Palutena, but from the look of her design that certainly was where her design came from. The similarity is too close to be a coincidence. Kudos to you!
Not quite a 100-percent sure confirmation, but I’ll take it. And I’m happy to learn that I’m not just seeing things. There’s more relevance for this right now than there might be otherwise, because there’s a chance that Palutena might be playable in the new Smash Bros. game. It’s an unfounded rumor, if a readily believable one, and I’d like to think that it, if true, means Princess Lana isn’t just trapped in memories of the messy pop culture of the early ’90s. Some form of her is still hovering about, acting all empowered. One more note from Mr. Vignali, about the Captain N version of Metroid big bad Mother Brain:
A funny story. When we were designing Mother Brain, the Nintendo corporation didn't give us any art for it. Instead, they gave us a video game. Unfortunately, none of us were good enough to get to the Mother Brain level -- and the DIC animation studio didn't want to pay us artists to sit around playing a video game. So, one of the secretaries brought in her son and he got us to the Mother Brain level. We grabbed some screen shots and were able to complete the design.
Ha. In the end, Mother Brain ended up a creature like none other on Saturday morning TV, even being voiced by Levi Stubbs, the lead singer for The Four Tops and also the voice of Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors. Mother Brain, by the way, was also announced as appearing in the new Smash Bros. game, and I feel unusually catered to — like someone is using my memories of back then to help determine what’s coming back now.

Cartoons, previously:

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